Read “Healing Through Play, Part 1: How to Use Play With Children After a Cancer Diagnosis in the Family” by Alexandra Waltien, MA, CCLS.

Julia A. Wick, MS, LCMHC, is a licensed clinical mental health counselor at The University of Vermont Cancer Center.

Julia A. Wick, MS, LCMHC, is a licensed clinical mental health counselor at The University of Vermont Cancer Center.

Play as an adult can hold just as much meaning as it does for a child, especially when cancer has come knocking on your door. But, PLAY may not be in your vocabulary when you’re awaiting a surgery date, going through chemotherapy, or living with the emotional after-effects of having a cancer diagnosis.

When thinking about play, the word might conjure up images of children laughing, or your own memories of childhood – winging on the swing set, Barbie dolls or Legos or Tonka trucks, or if you’re like me, creating worlds of fun in the sandbox. Just as fostering play in the lives of your children is vital, play is equally important for you, and cancer can serve as a bridge between the playful life of your child and your own experience of healing through your cancer journey. And as Ali reminded us, finding ways to play as an adult may also help you engage more deeply with your child.

What does play look like, as an adult? Play can mean many things, and can even be seen as a form of self-care. And self-care is vital when dealing with cancer.

What is self-care? It could be thought of as the active pursuit of one’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. This can be done through kindness and compassion toward oneself with sustained commitment to achievement of one’s goals.

So, you want to have goals that target each aspect of your whole self, actively pursue those goals, and be kind and compassionate to yourself along the way.

Easier said than done? Absolutely. It’s not easy to stay committed to a healthy path, and it’s even harder to treat oneself with kindness and compassion when all you want to do is crawl under the covers because you feel sad, anxious, defeated, or exhausted.

So what can help?

Play! Or, perhaps…PLAAY.

Be Purposeful in your Self-Care. Caring for others may come easily, but committing to self-care can be a whole different ballgame. You may feel selfish or greedy, or when all is said and done, maybe you’re just too tired to take care of you. Being purposeful starts with having the desire to take better care of you, which leads to creating intention. And the most important thing? Creating ritual around your self-care – this will help your new habit stick. Find a time in each day that is designated for YOU and stick to it! Then use that time for whatever aspect of self-care feels best to you – a long walk, meditating or stretching, or having a cup of tea with a friend. Make a commitment to yourself! Every day from 1-2 is time for me.

Liberate your inner child. You may feel skittish about letting that inner child out, or even wonder, where is she? Maybe you’re feeling like that child inside you has no idea how to play anymore. Opening the door, metaphorically speaking, to your inner child to “come out and play” can spark creativity and relaxation without having to force it. Then you can begin to craft activities that are enriching, fun and yes, playful! Consider watching a comedy, play hide and seek with your child, or even take out a coloring book. I release self-judgment and welcome my own creativity.

Allow happiness in any moment. Not feeling very happy? You’re not alone. Having cancer, going through treatment, or supporting a loved one with cancer – these do not go hand in hand with happiness, do they? The good news is, happiness is a state of mind – it’s actually not our circumstances that determine our level of happiness but our perception of those circumstances. So, that means you can have some influence on your own happiness no matter the circumstance.

How do you allow happiness?

  • First, give yourself permission to be happy, if only for a moment. Allow the bright spots to shine brighter and notice all the little things that give you even a moment of positive feelings.
  • Next, start to notice your thoughts, which influence your experience. See if you can replace a negative thought with two positive ones – spring in the air, the sun shining, or the warm smile of a loved one.
  • And then practice gratitude. Giving thanks for the good things in your life – no matter how small – and sharing your appreciation for others can go a long way toward a happier you. I allow happy moments regardless of my situation.       Happiness is of my choosing.

Take Action that brings you joy. We all have that special something that brings us joy. For me, it’s riding my horse or snuggling with my dog. What is it for you? If you can do it, then do it! If not, you can get the same benefit from visualizing doing it. Take a few moments now and go there in your mind. Taking positive action to connect to that feeling of joy – through actual engagement of the activity or imagining it – helps boost feelings of satisfaction. So hug your child, give yourself some flowers, or engage in your joy activity! Joy is in the next thought I have and the next action I take. I can bring joy into my life whenever I want.

Say Yes to yourself! Begin asking, what do I need today? Then close your eyes and listen for the answer. Saying yes to self-care, to moments of joy, to your inner child may just give you the boost you need to feel better and more confident as you tackle the challenges of cancer. I listen to my own needs…and I say yes!

Paying attention to yourself and your needs will benefit not only you, but will set an example for your children modeling good self-care. You will be participating in the well-being of your child. It’s a win-win! 

Julia A. Wick, MS, LCMHC, is a licensed clinical mental health counselor at The University of Vermont Cancer Center.

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